Feb 13, 2020
Understanding Complexity and Risk in the Wildland Fire Environment: An Interview with Travis Dotson
By: Annie Schmidt Travis Dotson
Editor’s Note: FAC Net’s Annie Schmidt had the privilege of getting to know Travis Dotson of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center when she worked on the Spring Coulee Fire Facilitated Learning Analysis. It struck her on more than one occasion that the respective work they were each doing was interconnected. Their shared emphasis on learning is an obvious and powerful connection, but it isn’t the only connection. Fire adaptation and fire suppression have a common operating environment. They may share a landscape and a place, but they also share the need to understand human behavior, attitudes and motivation. Annie sat down with Travis to learn more about the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center, how they approach learning, and why our shared values are important.
Tell us a little bit about Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
Travis: Like a lot of things in fire, the Lessons Learned Center has its origins in tragedy – specifically the 1994 fire season. People often hear that year and immediately make the connection to the South Canyon Fire. However, the 1994 fire season was an inflection point for more reasons than the significant loss of life at South Canyon. There were 34 fatalities that year, forcing the wildland fire service to take a big-hearted look at itself. The wildland fire service is often galvanized by tragedy and in this case, we were driven to action.
Many actions were taken in the aftermath of ‘94, including contracting with an outside entity to conduct an introspective look at the fire service. Known as the TriData study, the researchers completed substantial data gathering, conducted interviews, and ultimately, released hundreds of recommendations. One of those recommendations was to build a center for lessons learned.
The Lessons Learned Center opened in 2002 and its current mission is to promote learning in the wildland fire service by providing useful and relevant products and services that help reveal complexity and risk in the wildland fire environment. We use a variety of formats and tools to accomplish this mission, including an annual Incident Review Summary, Rapid Lessons Sharing documents (generated from successes, challenges, close-calls, or anything else we can learn from), and sharing of Facilitated Learning Analysis documents from significant wildfire incidents.
How does the Lessons Learned Center approach learning?
Travis: We have definitely moved on from the notion that if we just put incident reports on the internet, everyone will read them and learn. Learning is a process that is not guaranteed by producing a report. We have to think like educators. We can’t just be writing reports—we have to produce curriculum.
As most educators will tell you, all students are different. This is definitely true in the fire service! We easily reach the students of fire; those avid consumers of fire knowledge that will sit down and read every incident report put in front of them. But we also have to acknowledge that much of our workforce is made up of people working fire lines in the summer trying to make a buck for college. These folks probably aren’t reading the Lessons Learned Center on their break! Somewhere in the middle is the squad leader who needs to teach the annual fire refresher; hopefully they are going to be able to access our content. The struggle is finding a way to make learning accessible to everyone at all levels.
Access is a big part of learning; people need access to the material in a digestible format that invites action. We work to break information down into consumable pieces. In some cases, we are literally taking a single picture from a report and putting the most important lesson underneath it for distribution. This can be frustrating for authors when they see their work boiled down, but at the end of the day, these lessons have to stick with the reader in order to be learned. We also use tools like social media, newsletters, blog posts, email campaigns, YouTube videos, and podcasts to move beyond just posting them on a static website. I got an email the other day from an engine crew who was listening to one of our podcasts on a fire in Texas and talking about it in the rig. That’s a win for us. We try to be realistic about how learning actually takes place and adjust our content to fit that reality.
One of the things you wrote about in Two More Chains has to do with our identity in fire. I thought it was an incredibly important piece that is likely to resonate with many of our readers. Can you share why you took on that particular issue?
Travis: Emergency services is one of those professions where identity is important. There are literally t-shirts that say “We fight what you fear!”. The investments we have in our identity, in those values and traits central to who we are as firefighters, allow us to do some of the amazing things we do. But eventually, you see there are consequences to the age-old culture where we are defined solely by our identity as a firefighter.
We see people struggle deeply when they are involuntarily separated, reach mandatory retirement, are injured, or funding gets cut. There are also consequences to having a strong identity in fire when someone is forced to change or adapt their identity at home. This change can result from a marriage, a death, or at a deeper identity shift into parenthood. Some of the consequences we see are more serious—like depression, addiction, and suicide.
Sometimes people will ask “Why in the world is the Lessons Learned Center talking about identity? It is so far outside the sideboards.” What is revealing about that is where people think the sideboards are! While the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watchout Situations are important, part of our core mission is to push the boundaries. We still talk about the 10 and 18 and we will continue to for a long time. But we are finding that wildland firefighting is complex and all of these difficult issues are related. No one is going to deny that your mental state impacts how you operate. I once heard Brian Scholz, a survivor of South Canyon, refer to this as “human topography” and I think that describes this concept so well. In fire we are very concerned with how to read and navigate topography – we study it and respect it. The “human topography” analogy invites us to consider giving the same focus to the social environment we must navigate. In order to operate more effectively, we have to better understand our complex human topography.
How did you get involved with the Lessons Learned Center?
Travis: When the Lessons Learned Center first started, I was so excited. I was a GS-5 on a fire use module and the concept was new and interesting. I was a fire nerd and I read whatever I could find. However, when I saw what they were doing at the Lessons Learned Center, from my perspective as an operations person, I was frustrated because it felt like it wasn’t for me. It felt more academic. I understand now why it was that way– and it was a necessary part of Lessons Learned Center’s evolution. But I was definitely a little frustrated and alienated as I felt like it didn’t represent my experience in the operations world.
I think because of that opinion, a friend forwarded an announcement for my current position. I felt it was one of those deals where the universe says “you’ve been complaining about this, now is your chance to take action!” I was working at a training center and smokejumping in the summers. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else applied because they advertised the position in August, right in the middle of the season! The Lessons Learned Center went out on a limb to get an operational person. Like most things in my life, my path to the Lessons Learned Center was a stumble through irony into good fortune.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your tenure there?
Travis: I have learned that there are so many out there in the world trying to do good things and we all want to learn along the way. However, learning is complex. If you walk into the trailer hitch on the back of your rig, it hurts, and you learn that it hurts. You adjust your behavior as a result. After a year or two, you walk into that trailer hitch one more time. The original plan dissipated or the surrounding environment changed. Just because it happens again doesn’t mean that no one is learning. It means that our environment, and even ourselves, are complex and in a constant state of change.
Learning, and changing behavior, is not as simple as engineering a fix. The famous philosopher, Karl Popper, talked about clocks and clouds. If a clock is not working, you can take it apart, find the issue, and repair it. For a long time, we viewed all accidents that way. In reality, some accidents are like clocks but most accidents are like clouds. When you see a cloud, you can describe the conditions that led to the formation of the cloud, but you can’t necessarily single out any particular piece that “caused” the cloud to form. There is rarely one thing you can blame in an accident. It is not as simple as I thought it was before I worked at the Lessons Learned Center. The environment we work in is complex. Humans are complex individually and even more complex in groups. Even though it can be hard, it is worthwhile to account for human dynamics in our pursuit to improve operations.
What can we, as a community of wildfire mitigation practitioners, learn from one another?
Travis: I think making an initial connection allows us to have a window into each other’s respective worlds. It is important to have some perspective on knowledge and attitudes surrounding fire. It is my hope that folks new to the Lessons Learned Center can appreciate some of the risk involved in the operations world and what the consequences are in that space. Some of our risk is actually shared – we share the constant use of vehicles, for example, and the risks inherent to working in the woods with chainsaws. Whether we are talking about suppression or mitigation, risk is one place where we can come together on the same page.
You and I both talk a lot about behavior change. That is actually the tag line for the Lessons Learned Center: “A lesson is learned when we change our behavior.” Of course, it’s not really that simple and also—human behavior can be really, really hard to change! I wonder what we would design if we accepted people’s behavior rather than trying to change it. What would we build if some of the lessons were built around behavior acceptance instead of just behavior change? Maybe the worlds of mitigation and operations can explore this approach together? One thing we have learned about learning is that exposure to different perspectives is a requirement for growth.
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